The Futile Quest for the Authentic Experience

One reason people claim travel is to have an “authentic experience”. They envision traveling to a foreign country and living, eating and doing the things which locals do in their native culture. I have exchanged emails with people ready to set out on a long adventure who see themselves living with tribespeople in the African bush or in South East Asian villages.

Most likely, they are in for a disappointment.

The problem stems from the expectations people have before they go. The experience they are looking for is more often than not a stereotype they have of the place they are going, not reality. When I was in Samoa, I was talking to a woman from New Zealand who had been driving around the islands. She sounded disappointed and a little bit upset that Samoans had television sets. She lamented the destruction of the Samoan lifestyle and blamed it on western countries. She then went on a rant about how wonderful it was being able to live a self-sufficient life in a village.

A Samoan FaleI pointed out the inconvenient fact that Samoa is not in fact self sufficient in food. No Pacific country is. The most popular foods are instant noodles and corned beef. The biggest part of the Samoan economy are remittances sent back home from Samoans living abroad. The current population of Samoa would be almost impossible to sustain by methods used in the 19th Century.

She got upset and ended the conversation.

She had an idea of what Samoa was, and more importantly, what she thought Samoa should be.

Her Samoa was closer to the Samoa of the 19th Century or the Samoa of Margaret Mead. She was denied her authentic cultural experience because Samoans (how dare they!) were watching TV and using electricity. Samoans just weren’t Samoan enough for her.

Even though she would never state it as such and would bristle at the accusation, she wanted Samoa to be a cultural zoo where she could go and look at the locals doing their cultural thing.

The problem, of course, wasn’t with Samoa, it was with the woman. She believed several fallacies which infect many travelers from western countries.

These beliefs include:

The myth of the noble savage

This was explained in great detail by Steven Plinker in his seminal book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Their belief holds that prior to the arrival of western civilization, people everywhere lived in peace and harmony with each other and with nature. This is far from the truth. If anything, even despite the horrific wars of the 20th Century, humanity has become more peaceful over time. Early humans were very warlike and did their damnedest to harness nature, which was the biggest threat to their survival. They just didn’t have the tools to do the damage we can. Sun Tzu didn’t write the “Art of War” as a thought experiment. It was estimated that prior to the rise of civilization and agriculture, 60% of males in some regions could expect to die at the hands of another person through warfare, murder or execution. Mass burning of land was a common way to flush out animals. People in developing countries are neither innocents nor scoundrels. They are just like anyone else.

Applying Different Standards to Other Cultures

South Korean McDonald'sWhen an ethnic restaurant opens up in a western country, that’s diversity. When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, that’s cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn’t it good for others? Preservation of culture is considered an asset when practiced by other countries, but a liability when practiced at home. There are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Wendy’s and KFCs….COMBINED. I don’t think anyone is worried about a Chinese cultural takeover of America. A few McDonald’s and Starbucks overseas is hardly an invasion. Author Rachel Laudan noted the response by one of her Mexican friends who was criticized for serving Italian food; “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”

Confusing Modernization and Westernization

Through the power of guns, germs and steel, the first part of the world to modernize was Europe and North America. As other countries modernize, many people confuse this technological advancement with becoming more western. In the above example, Samoans have TV, but they mostly still live in traditional fales and have strong village and family ties. Japan is a fully modern country, yet it is most definitely not western. Technology isn’t culture. While there are some groups that resist technological change, the vast majority of humanity has quickly grabbed at any innovation which will make life easier. The classic modern example is cell phones, which have found their way to some of the poorest and remote places on Earth.

Japanese Temple

A static view of history

If you take a very long view of human history, it can be thought of as nothing but a flow of people, ideas, and cultures. Empires rise and fall. Religions come and go. Trade routes open and ideas and technologies are exchanged. The clothing, dances, and music of a country can really be considered fashions and fads of a particular era as much as pillars of particular cultures. The design of the Ming Dynasty in China is different than that of the Chin. When you hear the traditional music of a people, that music may only go back a few hundred years, if even that far. The arrival of Buddhism in SE Asia dates back to about the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Prior to that Hinduism was dominant. When you visit a monastery in Thailand, you are not seeing something which has been there from time immemorial, you are viewing something with a definite beginning only a few hundred years ago. Expecting everyone you meet in a country to be wearing traditional dress is like expecting everyone in the United States to be wearing stovepipe hats and bonnets. Cultures and tastes change over time.

Taking photos too literally

Ever see a photo of a thatched bungalow on stilts over the water in a turquoise lagoon? It makes for a great photo and many people fantasize about staying in an over water bungalow. They are a marketing gimmick. Water bungalows are not authentic in the slightest. They were created several decades ago as a way to attract tourists. What the photo doesn’t show you is that you very well might be sleeping over mud when the tide goes out (with the corresponding dead fish smell), or that the bungalows probably have killed all marine life below them because they block sunlight. I have spoken in the past of travel porn. What you have to keep in mind is that just like porn, what you see is often fake. Don’t get your heart set on it.

White Man’s Burden

Kids in Sarawak, MalaysiaYou will be hard pressed to find anyone who would explicitly say there is a “White Man’s Burden” in the 21st Century, but you can find tons of people from Jeffery Sachs to Bono who think “we” westerners can solve the problems of Africa and other poor parts of the world. There is a belief that with the correct policy, plan or organization we can solve the problems of other people. The emotional desire to do something in the face of extreme poverty is understandable, but you’d be hard pressed to find any examples in history of a people rising out of poverty on the basis of the aid from another country. Go listen to the African speakers at the TED Africa conference. They don’t want pity or for us to solve their problems. They understand they must be solved by them and can only be solved by them, on their terms in their own way. I am not saying you shouldn’t volunteer when you travel, but you should be realistic about what can be achieved and don’t look upon the people you are helping as objects of pity.

The Traveler Quantum Effect

One tenet of quantum physics is that the simple act of observing an event will alter the outcome of the event. Traveling is no different. When we have a guest over at our house we tend to clean up, dress nice and be on our best behavior. One thing any true “authentic” experience would have is the lack of tourists taking part. The very act of being somewhere means that you are changing the environment and removes the possibility from having a truly authentic experience.

Conclusion

If you are searching for an authentic experience, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. The world is what it is and you have to explore it on its terms, not yours.

No matter what you expect to see when you visit a new place, the reality you will find will be different. You are traveling in the 21st Century, not the 19th. Do not expect people to be caricatures or stereotypes of something you have in mind. View the people you meet as neither cultural superiors or objects of pity. Moreover, whatever you think is authentic was developed without having experienced it.

Change your expectations and you’ll find that every experience is authentic to itself.

74 Replies to “The Futile Quest for the Authentic Experience”

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  2. Gary, excellent article. But you are wrong about “modernization”. You say Europe and North America modernized first. What is modernization? Few years from now, the present will be the past and the technological advancements made then will be modernization. Egypt and India followed by China, their civilizations modernized first before the rest of the world. Then later on, other parts of the world took over and ran with it. Modernization is not something which happened in the last 500 years. It has happened although disproportionately throughout the world in stages since beginning of time when man first discovered fire and wheel. So being “modern” is just transient and not a milestone. Its slow but its steady. It creeps up when you least notice it.

  3. I have been traveling full-time since 2007, sailing the Mexican coast for 3 years and traveling throughout the US and Canada for 3 years in an RV.

    The bottom line is that all travelers are tourists. You can try not to be, but in the end, you are a tourist. You home town, your upbringing and your home culture are different than the place you are visiting. You can’t have an “authentic experience” because you aren’t one of them. You’re visiting.

    Once you accept that you are a mere tourist, you can begin to delve more deeply into what you are seeing because you are being honest about yourself with your hosts in their hometowns and you are being honest about them as well. You each have a role to play, and the tourist’s role is to visit and learn. But the tourist is, by definition, an outsider looking in.

  4. Very thought provoking article and you present points I havent really thought about before… I definitely agree that we need to let go of the pursuit of the ‘authentic experience’ and just stand back and take a city in for what it is, and observe all the facets that have been developed in that place over time.

  5. I’m so tired of reading about Westerners discussing about this “authentic travel experience” that I want to add to this discussion by offering the pov of a traveler who was born, raised and continues to live in a developing Asian country.

    Simply put, most travel blogs/articles that came out in the last decade or so still focus on “exoticization” of Asia- viewing it as the “others”, full of rituals and practices that are oh sooo quaint and different from the West and if you don’t partake of these practices, then you are not a “real traveler”. or, if you go to a place that’s more “westrernized” than others, then you’re not going to the “real” ASIA (how many times have i heard people telling other travelers to skip Singapore or Manila, because they’re soo westernized and boring? or Bangkok is exotic, Manila is too western)?

    What is exotic? Who judges what is exotic? When I was in grade school, back in the 80s, the first Mcdonald’s store opened in Manila. Everyone I know was so happy to eat in “Mcdo” (thats how we call Mcdonalds here), that I celebrated my tenth birthday in Mcdonald’s. My family and friends loved it that instead of the usual “pancit” (stirfried noodles with veggies) and cake, we were eating cheeseburgers, sundaes and french fries in Mcdo and there was A Ronald Mcdonald mascot too to entertain us! It was so different and tasty that in our (kids) minds, this Mcdo bday party was ….. “EXOTIC” .

    What isan “authentic” travel experience? Who judges what is an “authentic” travel experience? There are Mcdonald’s, Starbucks and cable tv everywhere and I’m tired of hearing people that oh, this place is damaged because there’s a Mcdonalds here. Hellooooo??? Things change, people change, places change and people experience travel differently. When I was in Toronto, I saw a LOT of Chinese restaurants and I ate there. Does that mean that I DIDN’T EXPERIENCE the REAL TORONTO? Should I have eaten more “Canadian” cuisine?

    The point here is a.)_stop exocitizing Asia. it’s patronizing and ridiculous. and b.) refrain from judging other people’s travel experience. what is authentic for you may not be authentic to others.

  6. I’m just discovering this post today … and coincidentally wrote something similar on Brave New Traveler last week called “On Perception.” It’s the psychological equivalent of this article, basically.

    But rather than summarize this article, I will tell you that I have a funny experience when I travel in India. When I am in Delhi, I live with my partner’s Indian family, and I live as an Indian — I attend pujas, festivals, weddings, temple visits, etc., with them, as one of the family. I eat Indian food and follow the rhythm of the household, which is very different than in Canada. I have to give up claims to privacy, and take on a more modest style of dress and behaviour, etc. It’s an amazing immersion into “authentic culture.” A privilege, really.

    But then when I leave and travel by myself in India, I am perceived as a white foreigner who could not possibly know anything about the intricacies and intimacies of Indian culture. It’s a bit mind-bending — but has really given me an education in perception.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  7. You can get close to a non-tourist experience if you know the language very well and the natives think you are just from another region of their own homeland. For example, if you go to Syria and speak Arabic very well the locals might think you are from Lebanon, Iraq, or Jordan. I was in Jordan and most people thought I was Lebanese and I don’t look Arabic at all (very white and pasty). That changes the way they deal with you. They take you for someone who knows what’s going on and will open up to you more. They drop the show that they put on for tourists and show you themselves.

    This isn’t possible in a lot of places though. No matter how well I learned Chinese or Swahili there’s no way I could pass as a native speaker of those languages due to the way I look, but anywhere in Europe would work and as far south as northern Africa.

    Anyway, great article and I agree with what you’ve said. I’ve heard that 50 years ago Japanese tourists used to come to the US and wonder where all the cowboys were. Cultures change and it isn’t right for us to want to keep people who want to develop from doing so just because we want them to remain “noble savages”.

  8. You make a lot of good points in this article, many of which I’d agree with, in particular as regards the inauthenticity of many national costumes around the world.

    There’s also a number of misinterpretations here, which I’d like to flag.

    1: Jared Diamond’s thesis in Guns, Germs and Steel is not that Europeans and Americans modernised first and conquered the world by guns, germs and steel.

    His thesis is that the people of the Eurasian landmass — from Ur to China to Egypt to Rome — modernised and urbanised first because Eurasia had easily domesticable plants and animals and a geography that allowed both these creatures and the techniques of farming to migrate.

    This is why Eurasians (loosely Asians, Middle Easterns and Europeans) developed clans, tribes, villages, cities, states, empires, and the guns, germs and steel to colonise other places.

    2: Self-sufficiency. In a globalised world, few places are self-sufficient any longer.

    Diamond itemises in his new book, Collapse, phenomenally impressive self-sufficiency developed in the type of Pacific Islands you seem to write off here.

    3: Thatched houses. The design of bamboo/palm wood structure with coconut/nipa palm thatch roof is common all over the tropics. The Bajo people build them over water. It’s a small point, but it’s not true that these constructions have never been built that way.

    More relevantly, I think what a lot of us are seeking is difference, diversity, new perspectives, in which authenticity lies.

    The opposition to MacDonalds is not, I think, about compromising authenticity but about tending against diversity (apart from the eco and public health issues).

    An independent Chinese restaurant or an independent mid-Western restaurant (let’s say) adds diversity. MacDonalds pushes out diversity.

    And it’s that homogeneity, whether it’s small market towns losing their locally-owned stores for a Tesco in Europe, or KFC colonising Asian high streets, which I, personally, don’t like, at home, or abroad.

    One point on noble savages. Having spent time with nomadic hunter-gatherers in Indonesia (and the violence and maternal mortality is terrifying!), I do still hold there is a lot one can learn from people who live differently.

    It may not be what we think it is. But it’s something. And some of us travel to learn.

    1. 1) I’m not misunderstanding Diamond’s thesis. I’m just referencing it in an off-hand manner. I’m just saying Europe conquered the rest of the world, for all the reasons he gives. My point isn’t why, just the fact that it happened. How exactly am I writing people in the Pacific off, by the way????

      2) The fact that other places aren’t self sufficient doesn’t take away from the fact that Samoa isn’t either. If anything is just supports my point.

      3) The places you see bungalows over water in brochures is in places like Bali, which never had houses like that. I’ve seen long houses in Borneo that were built over the water, but they aren’t over a turquoise lagoon and they aren’t sold to tourists. The fact that there are places in the world built on stilts doesn’t really have anything to do with the point I’m making.

      Also, McDonald’s doesn’t push out diversity. It doesn’t push out anything. It adds to the mix. It is diversity if you don’t live in America. You can only say McDonald’s pushes out diversity if you are looking at things from the standpoint of an American who only views “other” people as being diverse.

      The fact that you can learn something from tribal people (which I don’t doubt for a second) really isn’t part of the nobel savage myth which holds that people in a pre-civilized state were as innocent as children, and that all bad things in the world came about through the introduction of western civilization.

      1. Gary,

        First up, I’m not differing from the major thrust of your article — that the quest for authenticity is a) naive and b) intrinsically flawed by the quantum effect inter alia. I think it’s a well-written and provocative piece.

        I’m flagging what read as misinterpretations and factual errors.

        1. You say, “Through the power of guns, germs and steel, the first part of the world to modernize was Europe and North America.” Why I called you on this is a) you include North America, which is wrong, and omit Asia, which is wrong and b) you omit the central part of Diamond’s thesis, which is that this is an accident of geography. I don’t, for a moment, think you believe this. But in the context of a paean to McDonalds, it does read a bit like “American culture has conquered the world because Americans and Europeans are better”…

        The Pacific? I said “you seem to write off” in the context of your denying that any Pacific country was self-sufficient: I intended to query that (PNG’s self-sufficient) and also flag that Pacific nations did have some of the most sophisticated agricultural systems in the world. But I didn’t query it, so it must have seemed a bit random.

        2) Agreed. I wasn’t, actually, differing from the thrust of your point but flagging a factual error.

        3) Again, I’m not differing from the thrust of your point, but flagging a factual error, that overwater bungalows (on lagoons, as inhabited by the S-E Asian Bajo people among others) were not “created three decades ago by marketing people” but have been part of how some people live since time immemorial.

        4) I said McDonalds “tended” to push out diversity. What I mean by that is that it and other chain operators pushes up rents, brings in other chains, pushes out independent operators and street markets, and therefore tends to make areas less diverse the longer it is there. The *first* McDonalds adds to diversity. The subsequent ones (and the chains they bring in their wake) tend, over time, to kill it. My perspective on McDonalds, Tescos, etc, for the record, is not an American one. I’m a Londoner.

        I’m familiar with the noble savage myth and the data on early societies, though not the book (which sounds fascinating, btw). So I wasn’t differing from you here, more responding to your “just like everyone else” statement. Which is a) true – people are people wherever you go and b) misleading – because cultural and linguistic differences can be massive, even within a very small area.

  9. Great post Gary. So many well argued points.
    The search for the ‘authentic’ is nigh on impossible as it can only ever relate to an individual’s perception of authenticity.
    And as you say, the very act of travelling to someone else’s home means you are changing that environment and re-shaping the whole experience.
    Perhaps it’s all just part of the maturation of travel – a phase we have to go through before we realise that travel is about the journey within ourselves as well as without.

  10. Culture is as culture does, and no culture remains static if it bumps up against another one.

    I still find it odd to ride up to a Kazakh or Mongolian ger after a day’s horse riding and the first thing you notice is the satellite TV antenna and the solar panel by the front door.
    This in a strongly traditional nomadic and still living horse borne culture…

    Btw, it’s always at that spot because the door always faces south (cultural thing).

    Inside, everything apart from the TV set and electric clock on the wall remains traditional nomad – hospitality, food and dress. Genghis Khan would settle in immediately, because the fundamentals are still there.

    Despite the woven and pattern stitched fabrics and hangings (which they didn’t have back in his day – weaving wasn’t a skill on the steppe until they cuturaly bumped into the Chinese). And of course in his day they didn’t have the metal box heater with a pipe out the roof. Just a dung fire in the centre and hole in the roof.

    Things change, but people don’t… In my view, I travel to meet different people. Their culture is an added bonus.

    Rick

  11. This IS a great post, Gary, and I don’t want to take anything away from it, but… I have 2 points to make:

    1) “I pointed out the inconvenient fact that Samoa is not in fact self sufficient in food. No Pacific country is.”

    I would argue that the vast majority of Papua New Guinea is self sufficient. With the exception of a few cities, most people are still living on pigs and potatoes.

    2) “When an ethnic restaurant opens up in a western country, that’s diversity. When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, that’s cultural imperialism.”

    The problem with this comparison is that when an ethnic restaurant opens up in a western country, it’s most often a small family-run establishment trying to serve food that closely resembles that of their home country. When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, it’s most often part of a large chain serving disgusting food aimed at cramming salty, cookie-cutter food to the masses that tastes the same whether you’re in Prague or Bangkok.

    Whatever one might call it, it’s still disappointing to me to see a KFC in Hanoi.

    Again, not taking away from this great article on balancing our expectations and reality (after all, isn’t that what LIFE is all about?), but I question those 2 statements.

    (Besides, there wasn’t nearly enough controversy with this post. We expect more from you Gary – HA HA!)

  12. Excellent post. I agree. It is awfully imperialistic of us to think that we should have every modern amenity and whatnot while other people should cling to old ways for our gratification. Sure, sometimes, it is sad to see a culture, or a significant part of it, die, such as when a language dies because the current generation has no interest in learning it because they don’t see how it serves them in the world they live in, but it’s not our place to tell other people what to do. The fact is, it’s their culture, their community, their heritage, and thus their choice.

    And what, really, is authentic? I can’t help but think of the current batch of right-wing American politicians who claim that they are “real Americans” while those who vote Democrat or believe in gay rights or support the health care bill aren’t.

  13. You raise some great points here – an it is written so well! I love your quote, “When a western restaurant opens up in a non-western country, that’s cultural imperialism. If diversity is good for us, why isn’t it good for others?”

  14. Gary, terrific post, and so true. When I went a few weeks ago to Otavalo, an Indian market town in Ecuador, I was amazed at how many of the vendors were wearing their wares. I remarked to myself at the time that it might not be too different than uniforms worn by any American fast food outlet’s employees. It may be “traditional” but that doesn’t mean it’s not part of the marketing scheme.

  15. Wonderful post Gary. I’ve always been in support of accepting the world (and everything, really) as it is rather than fitting it into our own/media/the internet’s stereotypes. Your experience backs up your point well, and it’s the right attitude for traveling around the world. The fewer expectations, the more honest one can be about what one is actually witnessing. Now *that’s* authentic ;)

  16. Very true.
    I blog about hiking and often encounter a fallacy which is similar to the ones you describe: the idea of “unblemished nature” whereas almost every landscape – at least in Europe where I live – has been shaped by humans over the course of tens of thousands of years.
    At the end, it comes down in either case to some people’s inabilty – or unwillingness – to accept the idea of graduality: that a forest, although commercially exploited, still represents more of “nature” than a corn field, which, in turn, is still not the same as a factory of industrial goods. Or that a foreign country does not sell its soul if it acquires TV sets and outlets of McDonalds.
    I mean: our own (Western) countries have managed to accommodate technological change, why not let other countries try the same balancing act? Or does anybody advocate a return of Europe to the glory days of authenticity in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition, witches burning at the stake and the Black Death?

  17. I strongly believe just like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so is authenticity. What is authentic and valuable to one person, is hugely different to another. Throughout my travels I have come across the infinitely beautiful, and the unsightly too. Without having these extremes how would one ever substantiate a benchmark for their preferences?

    My stay in a water-bungalow in Bora Bora has been one of the best travel experiences of my life, and when a vigorous storm caused it to forcefully sway from side to side for 24 hours, I have never felt closer to nature in its most raw form. So whilst I agree pictures may be deceiving, it’s what you do not see that makes it the most exciting!

    Countries where there have been McDonalds or Starbucks sprouting out from foreign surroundings don’t bother me, I simply just do not eat there. Globalization is inevitable. Your experiences are absolutely what you make of them..

  18. I’ve been using the term travel porn for awhile, so it was funny to see somebody with the same idea. I’m making the move from Canada to Germany in a month, I’ll keep these ideas in mind for sure!

  19. Very thoughtful, insightful article, Gary. If we apply preconceived notions about a culture or destination we are very likely to be disappointed, and these preconceptions are more likely when we have only a short time to experience a culture – a two week vacation, for instance. My travels are becoming slower and slower (been in Nepal two months and will stay at least a third), and I try to arrive in a country without any preconceived ideas of the culture so I see it with eyes wide open and experience it fully. Slowing down my travels has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It allows me to have a more “authentic experience” because I meet and make friends of locals and discover the culture of a place.

  20. We just finished a 4 year round the world tour with our 5 kids (ages 13, 12, 10, 6 and 4). If I had more time and discipline, i’d love to write a book about our adventures. We did find authenticity, but it was 20th century speckled with good museums of past authenticity. And..while traveling through the small jungle villages of Burma this summer, the most authentic experience of all…watching the world cup on a small tv with 200 others burmese soccer fans.

  21. Great post!

    As to the idea of an authentic travel experience, I don’t see how one could expect or desire anything more than that which they are experiencing at the moment. How more authentic can you get in the most literal sense. What you get is what you were meant to see and if you were meant to see anything else you would have. Let the Mexican serve pasta and the Samoans watch TV, because no matter where you are they will be doing just that. Don’t get me wrong I look for the traditional experiences when I travel, but I tend to look in a museum for those.

    Sometimes I do wish I would have traveled when (or for as long as) Michael Robert Powell (even though I would have been 3 in 1988) but nostalgia is subjective and experiences are one’s own. In twenty years from now someone will read one of our posts and talk about how much ‘Country X’ has changed and that they wish they could have traveled to, seen, and experienced ‘X’ when we did. Yet we were too busy feeling cheated about ‘X’ being to modernized and not authentic.

  22. Yikes … I resisted commenting on this past a week ago but feel I must add something as someone who has been traveling near constantly since 1988 – when beyond the experiences of probably all posters, including our esteemed host, Gary.

    Firstly, I agree with the basis of the post (yeah: Guns, Germs, and Steel – great book and I too, love & study history) and that this post only applies to mainstream travel in the 21st century.

    There are still plenty of ops to get real in the traditional or “authentic” world. Try nearly any village – in (West) Africa – Sierra Leone, Guinea; the outer islands of Indonesia; rural Colombia; Yemen; Russia; India, Brazil, East Timor, etc, etc, etc – for the crazy surprise at seeing our strange foreign faces in their turf. And seeing that they live very much in a time capsule.

    And, I say this from first hand-experience as a solo traveler across the planet in the Developing World.

    But yes, expect the odd TV, some roads, a cell phone, nearly everywhere, and that the modern world is closing in – fast !

    Regards – Michael Robert Powell | the candy trail .. a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    PS: I enjoyed a Big Mac with a bottle of Chinese red wine … as my authentic experience, in Tai’an, China, today.

  23. I find a similar thing going on with a nostalgia for an agrarian way of life. You can see this in a sort of affection for the Amish way of life, or even the back-to-the-land movement. People who generally have little experience with country or farm life romanticize it. REAL farm life is pretty far from idyllic. Although being your own boss and working outdoors in nature all day can be a big improvement over cubicle life. But, at the end of the day you’re more or less at the mercy of Mother Nature for your daily bread.

  24. I think the key is not to have any expectations, in travel or in life. It sounds really hard but if you keep a fresh eye on things, keep a fresh perspective and try to learn as much as possible, then it can be possible.

    Experiences get as authentic as you want it to be. You decide what you want to do in order to get authentic.

  25. Authenticity is also an important issue in reading fiction and non-fiction set in other cultures. I write a series set in Thailand about an American private eye, and part of the challenge has been to portray the fault lines between the traditional and contemporary aspects of Thai culture. The largest challenge is to overcome the stereotypes that people form about a culture. Often we select our books and movies to confirm our bias. Along with several other novelists at International Crime Authors Reality Check http://www.internationalcrimeauthors.com/ we discuss and debate the issues of the authentic in contemporary fiction.

  26. I agree with the thrust of your article and applaud its thought-provoking nature. I do however disagree with aspects. While we certainly cannot “solve” the poverty (or “Africa”) problem, as one or several examples I can think of – research into disease can stem the worst effects of disease – places like India are better off because polio has been virtually eliminated and some large strides are being taken with malaria. Yellow fever and smallpox have been similarly reduced in the world. That is only done with finance and investment. It doesn’t solve poverty but such things contribute to people’s better well-being.

  27. Fascinating. This has been much on my mind too. I’ve lived in the Canary Islands for over 20 years, and I really miss how some places used to be. What were quietish fishing villages are now smartish resorts. However, I totally respect the rights of the people who live and work there to make as good a living as they can, and that means changes.

    Over these years tourism figures have shot up beyond belief, but the curious thing is that it seems to be bringing a revival of traditions rather than a forgetting of them. Folk groups have sprouted up in every village and hamlet. A whistling language which had almost become extinct on the island of La Gomera is being taught and cherished. Chefs compete to use locally grown produce in their hotels and restaurants, and for me, best of all, wine production has blossomed to 17th century levels! There seems to be a new-found pride in the old traditions, and in modern progress.

    The majority of people coming here still are looking to chill out on the beach, it’s true, but in looking to attract travellers who are more curious and/or active the islands are rediscovering themselves, and if it’s happening here, I am sure it must be happening elsewhere too. So your quantum travel theory is proven, for sure.

    We have colonial buildings, quaint tumble-down cottages and a World Heritage Site in the city of La Laguna, but we also have a modern auditorium designed by Santiago Calatrava amongst other 21st century architecture on the island of Tenerife. These beautiful buildings are no less authentically Canarian than the old cottages. They are the inheritance this generation leaves for the future, and those who inherit will be proud of it.

  28. Thanks for this great post! I am so glad you wrote about this, because it is something I feel a lot of travel bloggers do not understand. They are always talking about how when you travel be sure you do so off the beaten path or make sure you find that authentic experience. The thing is its never going to be 100% authentic because like you said you are there and it is not part of the element. The way I see it is I wanna travel, I wanna see the world, in some place I wanna see the touristy things because well thats what Ive grown up seeing but in some place yes I wanna go off the beaten path to get more depth to the place but I know its not going to ever be 100% authentic.

    I hope that made sense. Thanks again for a great post Gary, I admire you & your blog so much!

  29. Spot-on article! I’m so on the same page regarding most of it (though I can’t quite decide where I stand vis-a-vis western aid…Sachs has some good arguments).

    One wee quibble: I would debate the idea that Buddhism first came to Southeast Asia around the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Many sources (e.g. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/viet-thera.htm) date its arrival to at least the first century AD.

  30. I am a believer that any travel is better than no travel. That means mass group tours and cruises are better than sitting at home watching TV. …

  31. Very well put, Gary. I am visiting my hometown, Lucknow in India, these days and nothing is the way it used to be. There are more cars, more cell phones, more people, more apartment complexes, more everything. It’s a modern metro-wannabe but at heart the people are still warm, hospitable and welcoming. The reality I witness as a grown up woman is far different than the romanticized images that came from my experience of it as a child and as a teenager. I also revisited the Taj Mahal after more than a decade and while the monument is the same, the experience of viewing it in a much more crowded environ was very different. The experiences then and now are both authentic because they represent the reality of the situation. But just because the experience now differs from my experience in the past doesn’t make it less real, or less enjoyable, or less rewarding. To think of it any other way, is only setting oneself up for disappointment and denying oneself of relishing what is.

    On another note, I had announced your selection as Featured Photoblogger of the Month on my blog. Do check it out.

    Thanks for your insightful commentary.

  32. This is exactly like something I had just heard this weekend about westerners wishing to experience ‘fast food spiritualism’ and being disappointed by native cultures. It is really refreshing to hear someone say that a culture is not something to be judged by one person’s or one culture’s expectations of it.

  33. Excellent post. Well researched. But I tend to disagree with the definition of “authentic” used in the post. Why does authentic need to be the way it was 100 years ago? We only live today.

    I have had numerous authentic experiences on my travels and continue to enjoy them. Ever watch MTV India or enter McDonald’s in China and see the Fish Filet as the number 1? To me that’s authentic too. (not just the jungle or lagoon) If we open our eyes to different cultures and the global world, we can see authentic in everything-everywhere

    stay adventurous, Craig

      1. I guess I am not most people… and perhaps more people might want to consider not being ‘most people’ too.

        stay adventurous, Craig

  34. Great post. Since I’ve been travelling since I was a kid I guess I’ve never really had illusions about other countries, although it can sneak up on you once in a while. I remember hanging out in a village in Laos and stumbling across an internet cafe full of kids playing video games for example.

    I’m in China at the moment and while I’m interested in history and culture from different time periods, the high rise buildings and modern shops are no less authentic to me.

    With photography its funny how people take pictures of what they want it to be like, rather that what it’s really like. For example, trying to leave out the tourists and souvenir sales people.

  35. Gary,

    I’m a huge fan of history, and I love how you refer to the ebb and flow of ideas, fashions, and fads. It’s true that what is now the establishment was once new and sometimes not even welcome, and things will change again tomorrow.

    I agree with your assertion that searching for authentic is futile, because you really just have to quit looking and open your eyes. Although it seems hard to come by, it is in front of you all the time.

    @Andrew I think its unfortunate that you took advantage of this post to point out how your idea of travel is authentic, while others experiences are not. When are people going to get over that?

    1. “Took advantage of this post?” I thought the whole point of having a public forum was to speak one’s own opinion, just as, um–you just did. Why should it be unfortunate? It’s simply my opinion. I’m not ordering you to stifle your own.

      If you feel differently, then you may feel free to say “I disagree, being on a tour bus is as fulfilling or more fulfilling than your preferred mode is, because…” If it disagrees with you, or to some extent with the writer of the article, then rather than being over-sensitive about being disagreed with, perhaps it would be healthier for you to state your own opinion, and learn to be comfortable with the fact that people disagree with you, as I am doing.

      People should disagree all they want, without being threatened by it or becoming enemies over it, or trying to force people to share their views. If you find my speech bad, then the answer to bad speech is more speech, as others have said. So speak your own opinion freely, and how about letting others speak their own?

      1. I say unfortunate, because you trashed other people, and their experiences, Andrew. You referred to them as “passive slugs, being ordered to look at sights, but with no idea why they’re looking at them, little caring about anything they’re shown”.

        That’s presumptuous. It’s not disagreeing with me, it’s passing judgment on people because their choices are different than yours. And yes, I think that’s unfortunate.

        1. It’s certainly not because their choice of travel is different than mine. I’ve seen many people who take part in these cattle-herd tours, who get quite a bit out of it, and I’ve done so myself.

          I do say that MANY people have no such good experience, but become passive, because of the format of such tours, which is that you get ordered as to where to go and when to go there, and you’re yelled at instead of being invited to participate and exchange with people. I have certainly observed many people who seem to act bored and disengaged, precisely because such tours are designed in such a way as to disengage people. Call it judgmental if you like, and perhaps it is; I don’t like people who seem to turn their minds off and stop thinking as they travel. Judgmental I certainly am sometimes, I admit it; but are you asserting that this does not happen and that I’m imagining this uncaring attitude among many travelers, or that the format of the yelling 100-person tour doesn’t contribute to encouraging this passivity? I disagree with you if you do.

        2. And by the way–if, again, I completely agree that I can be judgmental sometimes, can you really say that you’re not? Let’s say that the problem with being judgmental isn’t (or I HOPE it’s not) the idea of assessing someone else’s actions to see how well they work. Instead, the problem most people see with being judgmental is that 1) one is putting someone down, being negative instead of positive, and 2) that one might be mistaken without knowing it, in the first place.

          Well, have you suggested any more positive way that I could contribute, while still offering my assessment of something I find destructive? Have you allowed for the fact that you yourself might be mistaken? Have you offered a better way that I might do things, and assumed the best of me, that I might be willing to try it? Or have you been just as judgmental and negative, assuming the worst about me, and assuming that you are right?

          I’m happy to receive positive suggestions, and perhaps it is unfortunate that I took a sneering tone. But if I see people behaving in a way that seems destructive in the way they travel, I will certainly suggest that they behave another way. Again, that’s no more than what you’re doing, and so you should.

  36. Wow, what a strong message! I think of all of my travels the place where I found the most “authentic” experience was in Cuba. I never have any expectations when I travel…I just let the wind take me where it will and I remain open to anything and everything. To me that’s authenticity!

    1. If you think about it, it is impossible for one place or another to be “more” authentic. They just are. If and when Cuba changes, it will still be Cuba, just a Cuba with new cars and computers. Authenticity and nostalgia are two different things.

  37. Holy crap, I had to double check to make sure I didn’t actually write this post! Says a lot of things I’ve been saying for years.

    The thirst of urbanised, modernised, wealthy for some authentic rural ideal used to bring North Americans and Europeans to Ireland and I’ve heard anecdotal stories of tourists being disappointed to see Irish people driving cars instead of donkeys, burning oil central heating instead of peat, and watching TV instead of dancing at the crossroads.

    Now some of the urbanised, modernised, Irish wealthy are travelling abroad looking for the same thing elsewhere.

  38. So true! I had to spend a few trips before I learnt this but I am glad I am now looking at the world from a different and empathetic perspective. Truly an inspiring post, keep up the wonderful work!

  39. Students late Sunday afternoon sharing a coke at a McDonalds in Singapore to get free aircon and lighting…and presumably wireless… “people-watching” is a fascinating experience that you can never capture in a tour…

  40. love the post… slapped me in the face when you mentioned “cultural zoo’ and i asked myself back… am i doing the same thing whenever i travel?

  41. Great article! Our expectations of travel shouldn’t turn into strict demands upon those we are visiting, to hew to some idea we have of them from a picture in a magazine, or an assumption that they’re to represent some primitive ideal. The Noble Savage idea was well skewered by the Firesign Theatre, when the hippies digging the Native Americans then immediately ask, “got any peyote?”

    On the other hand, I think there is legitimate reason for concern. The reason is the homogenization of the entire world. To my Turkish friend above, I’d say there is nothing wrong with Turks having a McDonald’s. But Turkey is such a WONDERFUL (and unsung!) place for great cuisine, that I would be horrified to have a McDonald’s burger, which I could have anywhere. Similarly, if you visit my town of San Francisco, where there is also incredible gastronomic culture, I forbid you to eat at McDonald’s :D) You have to try the great restaurants that only San Francisco offers you, instead of at a chain that’s the same everywhere, and that makes all the cities of the world a boring, interchangeable mass. Our ethnic restaurants are great, and do come from elsewhere, but just don’t eat at a chain!

    The essence of the problem is this: when my great-great-grandparents went from Britain to live in China, in the 1860s, where my mother’s family lived until World War II, you knew that you were to be immersed in a completely foreign place. You didn’t get on a jet to be there in a matter of hours; you took a ship, across a few different seas, to an alien land. When I travel, the reason I can’t stand tours is not because I think I’ll be having an “authentic” experience, but it’ll be a sight more authentic than the tour bus full of passive slugs, being ordered to look at sights, but with no idea why they’re looking at them, little caring about anything they’re shown, and ending it all by being screamed at to buy something by a local who cares nothing about them either. Yucch! When I travel, I want to be IMMERSED. I want to feel an ATMOSPHERE. You can’t feel that if you’re being screamed at by merchants in the most touristy quarter in the country, and then being herded like cattle by your tour guide, who screams at you as well. Travel is a meditation, and you need to be able to drink it in thoughtfully and quietly, but not passively and stupidly. I got that feeling of atmosphere the first time I visited Europe, when I went to live in England at five years old, in the 1960s, and then traveled with my family to France, Germany and Italy. Tourist sights can be wonderful–I’ve had perfectly sublime experiences in Venice or the middle of Paris–but I think one does need to break out of the tour buses in order to really feel the intangible feeling for which we travel.

    What is that feeling, and that atmosphere? Well, the article and comments are VERY thoughtful and pointed, but for the life of me, I’ve never quite been able to put into words what the feeling is, what exactly I’m searching for when I travel. This is very strange for me, because I analyze things quite a bit, and am never at a loss for words to explain things. But I just can’t quite define it. However, I know I’m searching for something, and I know when I find it.

  42. Ouch – yes it would be lovely if the locals would just sit around in the dirt in traditional atire (introduced my the 19th century missionaries in Samoa’s case cause they couldn’t handle topless!) waiting for the tourists to come by!

    The world is not a theme park – some tourists need to learn that

  43. Gary–great post! This speaks to the pseudo distinction between “tourist” and “traveler.” Semantics. We visualize tourists on mass group tours hitting the highlights: 10 Cities in 10 Days! While we envision travelers mingling with locals in off the beaten path destinations. What makes either venture non-authentic? They are both authentic experiences for the person traveling, albeit very different experiences. Either encounter exposes someone to new people, cultures and ideas. What gives one person the right to degrade another person’s experience?

    Of course, we do ourselves a disservice and corrupt our own experience by clinging to stereotypes and romancing the destinations in our mind, which robs us of the true authentic experience: one where we soak up the local flavor, warts (and McDonald’s) and all.

    1. I am a believer that any travel is better than no travel. That means mass group tours and cruises are better than sitting at home watching TV.

  44. When McDonald’s opened a restaurant on Louvre property, there was a huge hue and cry from people all over the world. Now, Parisians love McDonald’s, that’s been well known for many years. And, in fact, the restaurant wasn’t in the actual museum, but below in a tunnel with shops and the like. That didn’t bother me.

    But I remember back in the mid-seventies, my first trip to London. All I knew of the city was what I had gleaned from the many historical novels I’d read. I was only seventeen, and I definitely expected the city to be exactly like it had been in earlier centuries. So I was horribly disappointed to see, not only McDonald’s, but KFC as well. Instead, I should have been thrilled that so much of the city actually is still very much like it was in the past. Architecturally, anyway. And that’s so lovely.

    Several years later, on my honeymoon in Rome, I was once again disappointed that there were so many ultramodern touches in the hotel where we stayed in Rome. Forget the fabulous design skills that the Italians are famous for, I was expecting OLD, OLD, OLD. Again, there is so much in Italy barely changed from the past, it’s not necessary to halt progress completely.

    And yet…

    I was SO very disappointed when I saw the London Eye after it had been completed. I just couldn’t believe such a thing had been allowed. And that was just a decade ago. Still, now it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to experiencing, so I’m definitely getting better about this.

    I have to admit though, as lovely as it is, I’m only now starting to accept that glass pyramid in front of the Louvre.

    This is a definite condition, not at all uncommon, but I don’t think it’s one deserving to be despised. You see, many of us only know a limited amount about places before we visit them. And though there’s not much excuse for that these days with the Internet, we have to remember that there are still a great many people who don’t even use computers, much less spend any time at all gathering info online. People under 60, believe it or not.

    I know, it’s a constant surprise to me, too.

    So when you finally get a chance to visit a place you’d been dreaming of seeing for a very long time, and all you know about it is what you’ve read about it’s past – and that’s what you find most fascinating, it’s quite understandable to be disappointed when you find it’s not quite so exotic as you were expecting to be.

    The thing is, if one actually ends up spending an extended period of time in these places, I suspect disappointment turns to gratitude that those modern facilities exist.

    The human condition, it’s far from perfect and slow to change. But, as always, trying hard to keep an open mind makes accepting even what looks like unpleasant surprises easier.

    1. The Eiffel Tower was widely panned when it was constructed. Most Parisians thought it was an eye sore and the original plan was to tear it down after the world’s fair. Now it is the symbol of Paris and most people would be disappointed if it wasn’t there.

      Many of the iconic buildings around the world: the Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the Hollywood Sign, etc were all new and went against tradition when they were built.

      I can only image how our views of places like India are going to change over the next several decades.

  45. I am ashamed to say that I suffered from believing stereotypes and the ‘single story’ that I had heard of many places. I didn’t know it until we landed in our first country (Peru) and saw that things were different than I had thought. Chile was even further from my expectations and I managed to slowly shed the expectations and just enjoy the being. Excellent article. Thank you.

    1. Everyone is guilty of it. Myself included. Any thoughts or ideas we have about a place we’ve never been is incomplete.

      What matters is how we deal with that once we arrive and fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

  46. Great post! I particularly liked the Traveller Quantum effect that is much like the travellers postulation of Heinsenberg’s Law and your piece on the double standart for different cultures… I guess the main lesson here is appreciate whatever context you are given and just go with the flow, the most outstanding experiences are not planned but rather spontaneous…

    best of lucks brother!

  47. Excellent! Respect and interacting with dignity allow us to experience a culture more fully. Not projecting on others what we deem best for them is the first step to enjoying who they are in all their loveliness! (Even if it is altered just by our presence!) The minuscule amount of time most of us spend at any given place doesn’t allow us to have a true authentic experience or a true unadulterated cultural interaction. (But it is still fun and fascinating and I still yearn to travel more!)

  48. Oh how I’ve struggled with this the past seven months from a food perspective. You hate to go to the fast food joints because you want the authentic experience but then you learn the locals really do like KFC :)

  49. Fantastic article. I had to smile at the reference to McDonald’s. We recently got one here in Fethiye, to which many holidaymakers, travellers and expats groaned, ‘Well, we’re not using it. It’s just not Turkish.’ On asking our Turkish friends what they thought about it, they said, ‘Great, we’ve needed a McDonald’s for years. We go there all the time!’
    I guess McDonald’s doesn’t fit in with people’s ideas of what they consider to be Turkish.

    1. But the funny thing about McDonalds is it always tweaks the menu wherever they go. Grits in the South USA. Fried sweet plantains in Guatemala. Shrimpburgers in Japan. I suspect you’ve got McKofte? I do like it when, as in Antigua, Guatemala and Prague, the local authorities allow the restaurant in but keep those Golden Arches subdued to spare the effects on an historic neighborhood ambiance.

      1. You beat me to the comment Kevin :). Whenever I travel I always try to check out the local country’s McDonalds to see what is different on the menu.
        We just went to India this month and it was great to see that although beef is a no-no on the menu they still manage to adapt with the good old chicken maharaja.

        To me this can still be considered authentic by the definition (not false or copied)….. not to mention it always keeps me amused on my travels and makes for a conversation point.

  50. Very interesting read! I agree the most authentic travel experiences can’t be planned, and it can take months to have one and they are not what you may think an “authentic” travel experience would be. When I lived in a small town in Thailand, my most authentic experiences were just hanging out in someone’s living room talking, usually with a glass of water and nothing else. Not exactly exciting, but very authentic, and some of my best memories.

  51. I agree with what you’re saying about Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, have you read “The End of Poverty”? It’s strange, I’m taking a development anthropology class in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and we read sections. Let me tell you, it’s definitely strange to be the one American in a class of Kyrgyz discussing the responsibility of developed nations to help change the underdeveloped nations!

  52. So true. I loved the wood cabin type thing we lived in when in Panama. We were surrounded by palm trees and were lulled to sleep by the sounds of waves. We also had yellow water that left us with permanent stomach aches and an out house on the dock next door (they said no one used it but I know that not to be true).

    The main problem I see with so called westernization of paradisiacal places such as these is that in inflates the population to an unsustainable degree. It’s one thing to have 200 people using a tin shack over the water as a toilet and another to have a rotating group of thousands.

    And it seems the idea of an authentic experience still exists, but as you say, it just might not be what you expect it to be.

  53. I agree 100% – stop searching for experiences, start enjoying the moments in your life, and create the experiences you want – you will find that anything can be an amazing experience – since it really is based on your perception of what something is or isn’t.

  54. Very thought provoking article – I think the key is in defining ‘authentic’ as many preconceptions aren’t ‘authentic’ in the first place! So I agree with your conclusion – as the experience itself is what’s authentic, not the imaginary (but probably unmet) ideal!! Having said that, however, I must confess to having broadened my Australian accent and peppering my speech with ‘Aussie’ euphemisms I wouldn’t normally use when I thought that’s what the overseas tourists I was talking to expected … So it sometimes works in reverse, too!!

    Happy travels!!

  55. I am so happy that I was so young (20) when my husband was sent to Germany where we were to live for almost two years. I knew little of the world and so the Germany I experienced was just taken on face value. But, it also taught me not to be an ugly American. Sure, I made mistakes but I learned from them and never made them again. Nothing major, just differences in ways of doing things. You are so right, you can’t visit another country in any way but in the present. Wonderful article!

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